Archive for July, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

Starring- Nicolas Cage, Violante Placido, Ciaran Hinds, Idris Elba, Johnny Whitworth, Fergus Riordan

Directors- Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

PG-13- intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and language

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtrLGZI9Ov0

“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” relevant fact #1:

“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” relevant fact #2: see fact #1.

Lest your heart be filled with doubt, allow me to allay your skepticism: that scene actually does appear in the film, not once but twice. And to make things even better, Nicolas Cage acts it out in his human form, complete with vocalized sound effects and gratuitous crotch grabbing, before the movie helpfully demonstrates.

One cannot help but think that the technology was fated from the beginning to bring about this single moment. That single moment in time when real, overworked, and underpaid human beings in a post-production lab sat behind a computer, queued up generations of human technological progress, and applied it to the purpose of making a chain-wielding flaming skull biker urinate fire all over a movie screen.

That there’s some genuine Hollywood magic, kids.

Ever since the first one came out, I’ve been lamenting the fact that it really shouldn’t be that hard to make a good Ghost Rider movie. I mean, it’s so inherently awesome that you’d have to actively work at it in order to diminish it, right?

But I was wrong. In retrospect, these movies were always fated to end badly. And I don’t simply mean in that they had lackluster talent assigned to them, though that certainly played a part. I mean in that it’s nearly impossible to strike the proper tone.

There are pretty much two ways to do Ghost Rider right. Firstly, take it so far over the top that it approaches Adam West territory. But no one really has the courage to do that anymore, and Ghost Rider doesn’t really lend himself to cinematic joyousness. So, I guess you could aim to make a B-movie, but to be honest… I think that in order to enjoy an intentional B-movie, you kind of have to like bad movies already, at least a little. I don’t buy into “so bad it’s good.” Really, I don’t even know what to do with it. I do enjoy Adam West’s “Batman,” but only because it’s so daffy and has actual satire, jokes, and good comedic performances.

Secondly, you can take it seriously… But given what’s going on, you’ve got to have a strong script, strong directors, and a strong project that requires, you know, actual work and effort. Clearly that one was off the table.

So, what we end up with is this. There’s crap that knows it’s crap and loves it, having the decency to be humorous about it at least. And then there’s crap that knows it’s crap and simply isn’t interested in putting forth the effort not to be crap. It’ll throw in a couple of moments of laughable absurdity or excessive fanboy awesomeness so it can call itself “so bad it’s good,” but it’ll otherwise be unforgivably dull and pedestrian.

“Spirit of Vengeance” is that second one.

As with most Nicolas Cage movies people insist are bad on purpose, Nicolas Cage somehow appears to be the only one aware that he’s in a terrible movie—if indeed he is aware. I can never really tell with him if he’s just that bad or if he genuinely is just trolling the entire film industry.

Everyone else takes the movie quite seriously. Most of the B-movie humor comes from Cage’s performance—and maybe a bit from the dialogue, which, while pretty bad, could hardly be considered the worst. The writers do throw in the fiery urination scene, I guess, which, you know…the pinnacle of film comedy, am I right? Seriously, that scene could not feel more out of place in this dark, dark movie if Ghost Rider was wearing a clown hat while doing it.

The point is that the movie doesn’t go nearly far enough over the top to qualify as cheesy B-movie hilarity. It’s too grim. Grim beyond all reason, actually. The directors play every scene with the exact same tone, whether it’s creepy, happy, sad, scary, fun, or humorous (for the, like, two scenes that have actual jokes, anyway). It’s all filmed and scored the exact same way, so moods feel like they come out of nowhere. The entire movie has an extremely unsettling feel—not unsettling in the sense that suits the character, but unsettling like the people in “The Polar Express.” That sensation that something about what you’re watching is off. Well, off beyond the point that you are watching a movie about a fire-peeing skull biker. Actually, maybe not beyond that point at all. The movie is far too trippy, anyway.

(Did anyone else see that brief little cartoon image of a demon hanging upside down out of a tree during the scene where Nicolas Cage and Idris Elba’s characters first meet? Because no one else who was watching it with me noticed that, which…kind of freaked me out a bit.)

Either way, everything else about the movie seems quite earnest. Well, serious. ‘Earnest’ would imply effort. Idris Elba is still, sadly enough, in the phase of his career where he has to take crap like this in order to get his name out there. Ciaran Hinds appears to have carved out a niche for himself doing the best acting in a legion of bad movies every year. And Violante Placido…is in this movie.

It’s just…not particularly funny, and doesn’t reflect nearly the level of effort required to be anything more than a B-movie. But it’s not a B-movie either, because seriously, this is not entertaining. It’s boring.

It’s perpetually monotone, heavy, and exhausting, without an ounce of spirit. It throws in a few dashes of sheer stupidity to try to excuse itself, but it is what it is—disjointed, pedestrian, and hard to watch.

It might be an improvement upon its predecessor. At least it has some style and personality of its own.

But that is very, very faint praise.

-Matt T.

Lockout (2012)

Starring- Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Vincent Regan, Joseph Gilgun, Lennie James, Peter Stormare, Jacky Ido, Tim Plester, Mark Tankersley, Anne-Solenne Hatte, Peter Hudson

Directors- James Mather, Stephen St. Leger

PG-13- intense sequences of violence and action, and language including some sexual references

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmAbEgayExs

“Lockout”—a generic name entirely free of personality that does nothing at all to draw the eye, invite the interest, or provide any information whatsoever about the movie itself.

“Lockout”—a movie that is in fact the exact opposite of all those things I just described.

…Nah, I’m just kidding. It’s generic and entirely free of personality, ideas, or information. So, perfect, I guess.

“Lockout” doesn’t really deserve a particularly thoughtful review. So, I’m not really going to give it one. There are a lot of movies in a year that I think are made by very genuine people for very genuine reasons that just go wrong somewhere along the line. In fact, I think the majority of the films I’ve reviewed poorly this year fall under that category. I try not to be too mean to them. It doesn’t seem in the spirit of creativity.

“Lockout,” though, doesn’t seem like the sort of film anyone was passionate about. I don’t think anyone really, desperately wanted to make this. Film studios need cheap, effort-free action movies that they don’t have to buy the rights to so that they can stuff the pre-blockbuster season with just enough of them to ensure that they all turn profits due to the “nothing better to do this weekend” principle. It’s hard not so suspect the sci-fi aspect was tacked on retroactively, in order to ensure it stood out somehow. In retrospect, the plot would not be particularly different set in an Earth prison.

Plot? Innocent people get caught on a space prison around the time a massive breakout occurs. One of them is the President’s daughter (Maggie Grace). Guy Pearce gets sent in to save them. Predictability ensues.

This is a movie that leaves you asking, “Why?” a whole lot. Characters frequently and heedlessly make the most plot-convenient and often stupid decisions possible in every circumstance. A crucial one comes early—Guy Pearce is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. You’d think the government would be wary about sending him and would do so only as a last resort, but he’s pretty much the first idea they come up with and roll out. So, what, there were no free agents available who were at least a fraction as good? Tough to believe.

Characters? Maggie Grace is quite bland, and yet is somehow still the most compelling presence. Probably because everyone else is either blander still or completely detestable. I’m not sure if “Lockout” is celebrating her desire to make sure prisoners are well cared for or if it’s trying to make her look pathetic and weak. It makes enough stupid decisions in either direction to ensure it says nothing about anything.

And Guy Pearce has his smarm-o-meter dialed all the way up to eleven. If one out of every one hundred of his one-liners is funny, that’s still roughly eleventy kazillion that aren’t. I’m a very placid, peaceful, and non-violent person. Thirty seconds with this character, and I’d have punched him in the face twice.

It’s a sadistically violent film, clearly begging for an R rating it didn’t receive. I’m willing to bet the unrated version contains no relevant changes at all beyond removing the several hundred cutaways. Nevertheless, it’s a disturbingly, almost gleefully violent piece of work. It’s impossible to enjoy on a dumb fun level for precisely that reason.

But let’s not even talk about it as if it’s art, or a story, or anything that would redeem it in some small way.

It’s supposed to be fun. It isn’t.

Do I really need to explore the concept further?

 

-Matt T.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Starring- Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine, Alon Aboutboul, Ben Mendelsohn, Burn Gorman

Director- Christopher Nolan

PG-13- intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8evyE9TuYk

Why do we love Batman?

What is it about him that his movies are such events? That he’s the face that launched a thousand Internet memes? That he fascinates people so thoroughly? That he, almost entirely alone among superheroes, is entirely inextricable from his origin story? That he is as culture-defining icon?

I ask these questions because they are important in understanding exactly why “The Dark Knight Rises” works. It is many things by comparison to other works in its genre and even to previous adaptations of its source material, in some cases superior and in others inferior.

What I will say about “The Dark Knight Rises” is that it above all others understands who Batman is better than any other film that has ever been made—and perhaps will ever be made—about him.

The third and final installment in The Dark Knight Saga starts several years after its predecessor. Galvanized by the inspiration of the late Harvey Dent, the city has cleaned up its act. Organized crime is gone. The people are secure—and perhaps becoming complacent as a result.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has hung up the cowl. In “Batman Begins,” a lost love called the mask his true face, and here, it comes to fruition. His chance at a normal life died with Rachel. His identity died with Batman. He is now a recluse, holed up in Wayne Manor and bemoaning the state of his existence.

Puzzle pieces begin to fall into place. A new force rises: Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist excommunicated from the League of Shadows for being too extreme, operates from the shadows. He plans to fulfill the League’s will—the annihilation of the wicked stain that is Gotham City—in his own way.

Bruce is forced to don the suit and assumed his true identity once again. But with him mired in self-loathing, self-doubt, and utter hopelessness—can it be enough?

So, why do we love Batman? Why does he invite cultural obsession the way other superheroes cannot?

Well, we can start with the obvious—Batman is cool. Other superheroes, for no apparent reason, gallivant around in colorful tights, but Batman goes for the suit of bulletproof armor. He has all the best toys, and trust me on this one—“The Dark Knight Rises” may very nearly qualify as some kind of vehicle porn. His car is a tank with a detachable sci-fi motorcycle, and he flies around in a helicopter that would inspire envy on the Enterprise.

On top of that, Batman is power. He lives in the shadows and wages psychological war. He preys on the fear of criminals, driving them nearly to submission before he lands a single blow. He is fearless, or at least gives the appearance of such. He is a man devoid of any special powers or abilities who nonetheless can go toe-to-toe with gods and win. He is equal parts genius, warrior, and sheer, unbridled determination.

But moreover…Batman is human. He is every bit as flawed and weak as he is strong and resolved. It is amazing that, even as The Dark Knight Saga has acted as a realistic deconstruction of this character, it has made him ever more real and compelling, writing more into the mythos than ever was there before.

To start with, Batman is not a mentally well individual, and he never has been. He has masked it, even from himself, with purpose derived from his crusade against crime. But at the end of the day, he is a man whose parental issues drove him to dress up in a bat costume and fight crime. Vengeance fuels him, but his ingrained sense of justice stays his hand. He’s constantly at war with himself. “The Dark Knight Rises” taps into this aspect of him better than any other film I’ve seen. Bruce Wayne needs Batman every bit as much as Gotham does—in this case, even more so. It’s his coping mechanism for the incredible tragedy he’s endured across the course of his life. Without it, he is forced to wallow in his emptiness. He is forced to face directly the darkness that drives him.

He is entirely without hope. Other than Batman, he had one thing to live for, and the Joker took that from him. Now, he sees no reason to go on—but he has to, because that’s the way he is.

But all that brings me around to the reason I suspect people truly love Batman: he is us.

Superman is possibly the most iconic superhero, but people can scarcely be bothered to show up for his movies. Why is that?

Other superheroes are laudable individuals who use their abilities for good and persist in the face of great evil. Some have their own demons to fight; others don’t. But one thing is true of nearly all of them—they are not special for anything they did. They are special for accidents of birth or of circumstance. Minus one radioactive spider, Peter Parker is merely a good man. He doesn’t become great; he has greatness thrust upon him.

Batman is no such individual. Greatness was not thrust upon him. He forced himself to become great, because that’s what the world needed him to be. Someone like Superman was not only born great, he was born relatively without demons. There is very little amiss with him emotionally. What are his flaws? That he’s shy and withdrawn? He has nothing much to overcome.

Bruce Wayne would be a hero merely to become a normal person following the nearly insurmountable tragedy that was his life. Instead, he became a lot more than that.

This discussion happens often with me, participating in the social circles that I do. “Heroes are to be role models!” they say, complaining about flawed and dark antihero-type characters. “That’s why Superman and Captain America are the best!”

But I say to them—what good is a role model if he or she is not something to which we can aspire? Superman is great because he was born that way. Captain America is great because he submitted to a science experiment and didn’t get killed.

To me, a role model is this—someone who faces incredible odds, circumstances in which they know they could be defeated, even crushed, and doesn’t turn back. Someone who, like me, is deeply flawed—but not deterred by that fact. Someone who gets beaten down time and time again, but always, well…rises.

Batman is a character who saw a world that needed him to become more, and so he did. That was catalogued fully in “Batman Begins.” He is wracked with the pain of being him, but he doesn’t let that stop him.

Moreover, he was not born special. He was not born a hero. He didn’t stumble into it either. He worked hard to become the change he sought in the world.

And this is where “The Dark Knight Rises” truly soars.

Much has been said about the philosophy of this film—a fact that in and of itself cheers me, because do you know what other movies I can’t say that about? Every other superhero movie that has ever existed.

I’ve been reading a lot of the debate, trying to figure out what this film is saying, purposefully or by sheer happenstance. What does it say about Christopher Nolan?

For a time, I was inclined to say that “The Dark Knight Rises” is another relatively nihilistic film, one that is deeply skeptical of people, one that believes there’s no hope beyond that which we invent in our minds and convince ourselves is true.

But then I realized—the philosophy is in the title.

Christopher Nolan films have always gone dark places. But they have always been dotted with little flecks of light that become bright enough to overcome the darkness. It is not as readily apparent in “Rises,” which can be a difficult film to watch at times. But when it appears… It shines.

“Batman Begins” affirmed that everyone deserves a second chance. “The Dark Knight” proved that people are as capable of random acts of kindness as they are selfishness and evil.

Many who have analyzed this film point out that the city of Gotham fails its heroes, that the citizens turn on them. It says that, for all of us, help needs to come from the outside, and all we can do is wait for it.

But that viewpoint collapses in light of the idea that Batman is us. In truth, the film is saying exactly the opposite—it is affirming the idea that humanity needs a hero. But it’s not about waiting on one. It’s about becoming one, because unless ordinary people take action, no change will ever come.

What’s fascinating about “The Dark Knight Rises”—and the entire saga, for that matter—is that it shows people from all walks of life demonstrating the capacity for good and evil. In “Batman Begins,” we saw one cop stealing from a street vendor. In “Rises,” we watch an army of police officers lay down their lives to protect the people. In “The Dark Knight,” we saw a convicted criminal prepared to sacrifice himself to save others. In “Rises,” we see them fall behind in support of a sadistic and murderous regime.

Even within the film… The beginning of “Rises” is about the oppressive wealthier classes. One man supplies Bane in his murderous plots so that he can increase his own financial standing and his position within the business. Others abscond with charity funds raised for the downtrodden. When Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) goes off on her tirade about the wealthy living large and leaving so little for everyone else, it rings a bit true.

But Bruce Wayne, himself a billionaire, applies his great wealth to the protection of others. His key corporate ally, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), is himself a good and idealistic man.

And in the end, it’s turned on its head. Bane sets in place a regime that tears the wealthy and powerful from their homes and puts them on trial for execution before a crowd of jeering commoners. He finds his army with them.

And yet, idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), himself raised in poverty and acutely aware of its effects, emerges as one of the great heroes of the film. His attitude towards the wealthy may not perhaps be disdain, but it could certainly be described as skepticism. He wonders why they don’t help.

And when Selina sees the pain her desires have wrought, she understands the consequences of her desires, carried out to their extremes. The film implies her to be some kind of modern day Robin Hood. But when push comes to shove, it is with the good people that she sides—regardless of class.

In the end, throughout these films, it’s a variety of ordinary people—rich and poor, criminals and those with clean records—who emerge as heroes, who make themselves that way because it’s what the situation needs. Too little has been said of one character in this film—minor, who has escaped notice. His name is Foley (Matthew Modine), one of the cops in this particular film, and he follows an arc that almost follows Batman’s in its own way. He begins as a self-absorbed power-seeker, but the film transforms him into a man afraid but willing to die to save those who cannot save themselves.

This is shown also in Batman’s own story—and its reflections in the film’s villains. He is a man who took his own tragedy and turned it into something that he uses to help people. He surely thirsts for vengeance, but he denies it to himself, because then he knows he’ll have stared too long into the abyss. Contrast this with another villain who emerges as the plot unfolds—parents both killed under tragic circumstances, this individual is also possessed of a fanatical desire for justice but has turned it into a revenge-fueled quest for destruction.

Even Bane, whose story is less tragic, is reflected here. He, too, desires some kind of justice—a twisted version, one that exists because he has appointed himself to godlike status. He has allowed it turn him into a vessel of destruction. Unlike the League of Shadows as seen in “Batman Begins,” he is not content simply to purge evil—he is determined to punish it, to make it suffer. He wants the people of Gotham to despair before they die, to give them hope and then crush it before their eyes.

Yes, the film is dark. Yes, it is an oppressive and somewhat difficult watch. And yes, most of Gotham’s citizens do not rise to the challenge. Some side with Bane, selfishly seeking their own gain. Others simply cower.

But it is not nihilism that is the film’s intent. There is a fine line between pessimism and realism. Most of us are not heroes. If we were, we wouldn’t need them. Gotham needs heroes, because it is mostly bereft of them. It needs Batman—the symbol he represents, of the hero anyone can become.

What the film is truly doing is appealing to the heroes who are out there. It is showing them the long and arduous process that exists in realizing one’s own potential. Christopher Nolan understands something fundamental about storytelling here—that the victory is not satisfying unless the hero faces his or her breaking point. Batman does. And he overcomes it in the biggest way imaginable. So do scores of the other characters: Alfred (Michael Caine), despite his apparent appraisal of Bruce’s life above his soul; Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), despite his deception and his possible disregard for the innocence of the people he’s been prosecuting; Catwoman, despite her criminal nature.

It’s never easy. But someone has to do it. “The Dark Knight Rises” makes the case why. In the end, it’s those who believe in second chances, who find a way to practice love, and who don’t divide themselves along the lines of their differences and disagreements, who triumph.

There’s talk of Batman taking on Christ-like imagery in some form of biblical metaphor here, but I disagree. The fundamental point of Batman, the thing that makes him so fascinating, is that he is human, just like us—flawed. But he is the product of his own choices. He is able to do the right thing.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is only partially a societal commentary, if at all. It is a call to action. The world is a dark and difficult place, but we don’t ask why it’s worth saving. It’s worth saving because it can be better. But it can never happen without ordinary people, despite their flaws, personal demons, and weaknesses, standing up to fight the good fight, and to fight it with honor and decency.

And that I can glean all that from some dumb comic book movie is a really amazing thing to me.

-Matt T.

Brave (2012)

Starring- Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson

Directors- Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell

PG- some scary action and rude humor

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEHWDA_6e3M

“Brave” is an encouraging disappointment. I can’t say that I’m likely to revisit it again and again, as I do with prior Pixar gems such as “WALL-E,” “Up,” and “Toy Story.” Nevertheless, it allows me once again to more or less happily recommend a Pixar movie—a heartening step up from the casual and disinterested stamp of bare approval I halfheartedly awarded “Cars 2.”

“Brave” is the story of Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a medieval Scottish princess, the daughter of clan leaders Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Elinor (Emma Thompson). She is torn between her rugged, wild ways and her mother’s strict observation of tradition: that a lady enjoys ladylike pursuits.

When the other clan leaders arrive for a great tournament, it is soon revealed to Merida that their sons are here to compete for her hand in marriage as a means of keeping peace between the clans. And that’s enough for her.

She tears off into the woods alone. I wouldn’t dare spoil what comes next, only to say that Merida soon learns to be very, very careful what she wishes for…

Now, while “Brave” might not reach the cinematic heights of previous Pixar classics, it is nevertheless encouraging to me. The reason is this: it actually feels like a Pixar movie.

“Cars 2” seemed more DreamWorks. Watching it, I couldn’t help but feel that the guys at Pixar knew better. John Lasseter has said time and time again that it was not a cynical cash ploy, and I’ll take his word for it. But it seemed like one. It told no story of note and turned away from the strengths for which the studio is famous—surprisingly complex characters, subtlety, and crackling and effective humor. It was the first Pixar movie that seemed pitched solely to children—and not in the sense that “The Muppets” was, mostly talking up to them instead of down at them.

“Brave,” on the other hand, feels more sincere. It has its problems—a few of which it shares with “Cars 2”—but its strengths are paramount. It has heart, it has occasional solemnity, it has magic, it has imagination. Its characters are likable, and it is possessed of vibrant and detailed animation that creates a world instead of just sketching one out. It has funny moments, but to be fair, it is more hit and miss than I am used to. Pixar seems to be struggling in this regard—even “Toy Story 3,” an outright fantastic film, had an alarming number of jokes that just fell flat. But I digress.

Why do I not find it discouraging? Because if it had come out before “Cars 2,” no one else would either. It’s certainly better than the original “Cars,” and no one was too particularly troubled by that one initially. That’s not to say people would’ve liked it more, but their attention might be in better perspective.

Do I find it to be a bit of a coincidence that “Brave,” a comparatively weak Pixar effort, finds itself sandwiched between one of Pixar’s greatest missteps to date and an upcoming prequel that so far looks very unnecessary to me? Well… Yes, a bit.

But I see the comparative failures of “Cars 2” and “Brave” to be of different types. “Cars 2” was a project I don’t think anyone other than possibly John Lasseter was particularly excited about. It reflects a lack of passion and attention to detail from beginning to end. Lasseter may not have made it for money, but I think a lot of the other guys on the team might have.

Where “Brave” flounders, on the other hand, it flounders because it represents Pixar trying something new, something out of its storytellers’ element. And I kind of suspected that from the beginning, even from the moment I read the first plot synopsis.

“It’s Pixar’s first female protagonist! A protagonist who is female! You read it right here, folks: this movie is about a girl!

It was clear to me that this was going to be a major selling point and that at least part of the motivation behind the film was a desire to dispel any public notions of Pixar being sexist (said claims are and always have been ludicrous, by the way). The plot itself didn’t ease my worries any: oh, a spitfire young princess fighting against tradition so she can do things that aren’t girly? Where have I heard that before?

And this is really the movie’s main problem: it is overly familiar. The story and characters are all strong and heartfelt, the clear end result of intensive effort and calculation. It really is Pixar standard in this regard. But at the same time… I have seen all of these characters before. I have heard this story before. It hits a lot of beats that have become excessively predictable to me. Don’t get me wrong: Pixar does this story very, very well, which is why I recommend it, especially to families. But it doesn’t put enough new fresh twists on this premise. Therefore, it doesn’t become a film I’m particularly compelled to revisit, because I’ve seen it before. Many, many times, in fact.

There are a few twists I can appreciate. Firstly, I like that this is a story with a parent/child conflict where no one is explicitly right or wrong. In their shared adventure, both mother and daughter learn a bit of perspective. Movies like this usually make the rebellious daughter thoroughly correct, but Pixar here crafts a situation that is a bit more delicate and complicated. This, I liked.

And again, it does have some fun new characters. Fergus, for me, was the most entertaining character in the film by a long shot. He doesn’t really get much development, mind you, as his relationship with his daughter seems pretty healthy from the start. He’s the lax parent, the one who winks at his children and slips them extra dessert under the table when mother isn’t looking. He’s goofy, but not bumbling—he just likes to have fun. He also exists in a world of constant heroism and bravado, regardless of whether or not it’s called for.

At the same time, the movie has three credited directors and five credited writers—unusual for Pixar, and it shows, a bit. I’m not sure of the film’s production history. Perhaps a few things went wrong and needed to be redone without scrapping everything. I don’t know. But while the animation is gorgeous and fully realized beyond shadow of a doubt, the script feels unusually rushed. It is bolstered by strong and likable characters and a sense of magic, imagination, and gravitas. But it also tends to skip over major developments far too quickly.

The movie opens with a voiceover narration—I think the first one I’ve seen in a Pixar movie. And it hastily brings the audience up to speed on a lot of things that could very easily (and more effectively) been shown to us without driving up the runtime more than ten minutes or so. It shows an uncommon lack of subtlety for the studio, which is driven home yet again late in the film when things turn to speechifying and blatant discussion of emotions in ways people don’t ordinarily talk.

The twist with Merida’s mother comes a bit later than I expected as well, and it leaves little time for both characters’ development. Instead, it’s mostly done montage-style, which is a frustration. That the two characters arrive at a mutual understanding of one another is laudable, and one of the film’s strongest points. How they arrive at said mutual understanding, however, was never quite clear to me, except in some of its most basic points. Characters forsake tradition too easily. The film tends to take the unseen third way out of conflict, forcing no one to really sacrifice much of anything. None of it’s bad; the outline and framework of a great story are in there somewhere. But at some point along the line, the script just gets ahead of itself and glosses over important character development, making it all seem a bit too easy.

Clearly, “Brave” is shy of brilliance. Some Pixar movies are counted among my all-time favorites. Some of them I could watch a thousand times and never find them the least bit boring. “Brave” is unlikely to even get to a second viewing. It is a very good film, no doubt—funny, visually beautiful, and occasionally moving. But it’s also extremely familiar, and that drags it down. Nevertheless, it represents an effortful failure, and had “Cars 2” never been produced, I think we’d all see it as nothing more or less than a comparatively middling effort from a studio that is frequently capable of genius.

-Matt T.

Act of Valor (2012)

Starring- Jason Cottle, Nestor Serrano, Alisa Marshall, Gonzalo Menendez, Roselyn Sanchez, Alex Veadov

Directors- Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh

R- strong violence including some torture, and for language

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnlPgo9TaGo

This review requires a disclaimer. Because the movie is a public opinion trap.

For whatever reason, “Act of Valor” has prompted a critical discussion that is not in any way productive and is instead mean-spirited, knee-jerky, close-minded, and judgmental.

You really only have two choices. You can like it, in which case you’re an artless, gun-toting redneck/armchair general; or you can dislike it, which means you’re an unpatriotic America-hater.

So, this is where we’ll start. I was sorely tempted to turn this review into a post about patriotism, but I’ve decided I like having my limbs intact too much. We’ll forgo that.

Instead, let’s turn it into a brief moment of self-reflection. Think for a moment. If I say that I enjoyed this movie, will you snort and immediately start thinking about how stupid I am? And if I say that I hated it, will you immediately take to your keyboard to make sure I know what a terrible person I am?

Is your answer to either of those questions ‘yes’? Well, then, here’s what to do.

I’d like to direct your mouse to the upper left. There, you’ll find a neat little backwards arrow. Right here, right now, that button is there just for you. Click that, and carry your thoughts to one of the far too many forums where that type of thing seems to be welcome. Because this isn’t it.

Here, we will discuss the film. We may even endeavor to have a productive conversation about patriotism. But this reactionary, knee-jerk, judgmental self-righteousness has no place here—or anywhere, for that matter, but I can’t control that. This is a review of a movie. That is the beginning and ending of it. Personal commentary is not required, nor is it invited.

So, anyway… “Act of Valor.” It’s a movie.

Now that I’m free to be honest, I can say this: it’s neither as bad as I feared or as good as the large part of my social circles insisted. And to be frank, that’s kind of my main problem with it.

It really stems back to my philosophy about film, in terms of what I want to get out of the experience. In general, if a movie isn’t good, I want it to be really, really bad—something bad enough to be amusing, or morally ignorant enough to be offensive. Because at least it’s an emotional reaction, you know? Ho-hum films—films that are okay, or maybe just slightly below average—are harder for me to watch, because I can’t enjoy them, and I can’t actively criticize them either. They leave me feeling like I just stared at a blank screen for two hours.

And that’s my main problem with “Act of Valor”—it’s ho-hum.

I’ve heard that it started out its life as a recruitment video for the Navy SEALS, and honestly—it should’ve stayed that way. I say that not to denigrate recruitment videos or even this film instead, but simply to express the format in which this thing would best have worked.

If you’re going to upgrade it to movie status, there needs to be art. There needs to be a story. “Act of Valor,” on the other hand, seems to have begun as a series of SEAL operations involving gunfights, infiltrations, and espionage that then, as an afterthought, had five-minute dialogue sequences stuffed in the middle to lend them some kind of narrative continuity.

You’ll notice I haven’t summarized the story yet, and there’s a reason for that—there isn’t much of one. It’s almost entirely action sequences. There are Navy SEALs. They are called out to rescue a kidnapped agent (Roselyn Sanchez). There, they learn that it’s all part of a terrorist plot to sneak suicide bombers equipped with destructive new technologies across the Mexican border into the U.S. in order to wreak havoc. The rest of the movie is a series of operations, roughly equivalent in scope, designed to stop said plot.

If I were to identify the single most damning problem in “Act of Valor,” it’s easily the characters. It’s the second film I’ve seen—“Battle: Los Angeles” being the other—that establishes its characters by flashing names and ranks on the screen. I find it no coincidence that both films were severely lacking in the character department.

However, “Act of Valor” is worse than most. How so? Well, I’m not sure who the protagonist was. There are two candidates, and I rapidly lost track of which one was which. The entire rest of the squad is introduced to us as well, for the sole purpose of…doing almost nothing whatsoever for the rest of the movie. This makes the big introduction scene all the more confusing and ineffective.

I couldn’t get a handle on who everyone was. We get ten minutes of introduction, and immediately after that, they’re saddled with helmets, face paint, and days-old layers of dirt and grime obscuring their identities. It didn’t take long for me to lose track of every single character.

The final scenes include a crucial death—like, really crucial. And it took me until the funeral scene to figure out who it was. I’m not saying the movie doesn’t technically speaking provide the necessary information to know this when it happens. But you’d better be really good with names and faces. And you’d also better be focused and alert. I was checking my watch too much.

Those really are the two big issues—the characters are poorly established, and the story has no sense of build-up or cohesion. It could’ve been two hours longer or one hour shorter without feeling any more or less self-contained. It just seems like it goes on until it just decides it doesn’t want to go on anymore, and then BOOM! CLIMAX!

A lot’s been said of the acting. The members of the squadron themselves are played by active duty Navy SEALs, who remained anonymous (hence I didn’t list them). So, the criticisms of the acting quality are not inaccurate. It’s pretty emotionally empty. Lines get stumbled over it, and some scenes have a distinct community play quality. However, they all turn in better performances than the professional actors in “Red Tails,” so there’s that. Then again, they’re also working with slightly better dialogue.

In the end, I don’t know why actors weren’t used. The film’s commitment to realism is laudable, but I didn’t see anything in the action sequences that I hadn’t seen replicated exactly in other films. And even if you want realism in the action sequences, why not use the SEALs as stunt doubles with the actors filling in for the much-needed dialogue and character development?

In either case, the actors aren’t particularly the problem. It’s the script, through and through, with its almost complete disregard for story and character and its frustrating willingness to slip into very tired clichés (two war movies in a row that used that stupid, stupid death trope…).

…Well, I guess that’s it for “Act of Valor”! Tune in next week, when I review… Sigh… You guys want me to talk about its philosophy, don’t you? Geez, the imaginary readers that I dialogue with in my head sure are mean to me…

So, the main criticism that seems to get leveled at “Act of Valor” is its excessive patriotic jingoism and general attitude towards war. Well, what did I think?

Honestly? It wasn’t that terrible in this regard.

Now, make absolutely no mistake about this—its thoughts on war are not particularly nuanced or ambiguous. At times, I found myself observing that it didn’t seem to have thought the entire way through its philosophy. As a quick example—it asserts that sympathy must be left behind in war, but if we do that, what makes us different from our enemies that we claim are evil? If we torture, and they torture; if we bomb their civilians, and they bomb our civilians; if we take their lives without care, and they take our lives without care—how are we different? Because of the causes we fight for? Every person believes his or her cause to be just. And in international affairs, few causes are ever explicitly good or evil—frequently, they are merely necessary. If we sacrifice our sympathy, how can we claim the moral high ground? That’s a question worth asking.

But I digress.

As patriotic, jingoistic war films go… Well, “Act of Valor” respects its antagonists more than most. Perhaps the head terrorist (Jason Cottle) leans a bit towards the cartoonish and one-dimensional side. But it has a couple of surprisingly human moments. In fact, throughout the entirety of “Act of Valor,” there were two scenes I really liked.

The first finds the SEAL Senior Chief interrogating the terrorist’s supplier (Alex Veadov). And I’ll say this right off the bat—the individual playing the Senior Chief, who appears also to be a real-life SEAL, is the only one in this movie who I would be perfectly happy seeing on the silver screen again. He is surprisingly good. In fact, since he doesn’t participate in the battles, I thought that he actually was a professional actor. He exudes menace in this scene, enough so to lend him a slight edge of moral ambiguity. He switches between good cop and bad cop on a dime, and in a way that makes him unpredictable and kind of scary. I was really surprised by this fellow and would very much like to see him again, whoever he is.

However, Alex Veadov actually is an actor, and he helps make this scene what it is as well. He plays it coy from the start, but quickly reveals a gap in his defenses—his daughter. He loves her unconditionally, and he is manipulated easily with veiled threats against her. His performance coupled with this immediately takes a villainous character and abruptly makes him human.

The other scene I appreciated is shorter and comes much later. In a movie like this, I fully expected the suicide bombers to be big, strapping, ugly men who ran from cover, shouted, “Allah akbar!” and happily killed themselves and others for the cause.

The one moment in “Act of Valor” where this happens, what we see is this… A young girl, attractive—terrified, with tears streaming down her cheeks, thumbing the trigger, trying to summon up the courage.

It manages to be a war movie that takes a side, but without the vile dehumanizing strokes of something like “Windtalkers.”

“Act of Valor” may be unambiguous and heavy-handed… But it did not lose its humanity, not entirely. As angry as I expected it to make me… I was not that angry.

Of course, that’s at least part of the reason why the movie as a whole is so unmemorable to me. Not that I wanted it to offend me, mind you, but then again… Well, “Contraband” was dull and forgettable, but all of one scene ensured I’ll probably hate it passionately for quite some time. So, I guess it depends on what you’re going for.

Overall, “Act of Valor” is not the mess it could’ve been. But it also never makes a compelling case for why it’s not a documentary or, you know, a recruitment video. It doesn’t fully make the transition to movie, because it has no interest in art or story or emotion.

So, I can’t recommend it. But at least it’s not going to stick around in the pit of my stomach for the next week.

-Matt T.

Red Tails (2012)

Starring- Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo, Kevin Phillips, Lee Tergesen, Gerald McRaney, Marcus T. Paulk, Bryan Cranston, Leslie Odom Jr., Okezie Morro, Aml Ameen, Michael B. Jordan, Andre Royo, Method Man, Daniela Rush

Director- Anthony Hemingway

PG-13- some sequences of war violence

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wityJA7DlII

…Wow, “Red Tails.” Just…wow. I don’t even… What an incredible exercise in taking nonexistent expectations and somehow turning them into a disappointment anyway.

Right now, just for kicks, I’m going to write the review opening I thought I was going to use for this: “‘Red Tails’ is a mediocre but well intentioned film that is ultimately a bit subpar. However, I still hope for its success, because I want to see more films about non-white people that do not also have white heroes.”

But… Look. Mr. Lucas, I need you to sit down with me a moment. I have some bad news for you, and there’s no easy way to say it, so I’ll just charge ahead. Sir, Hollywood did not refuse to fund your movie because it is about black people. They refused to fund it because it freaking sucks.

I honestly don’t even know how this got made, how it changed hands between everyone on the crew and somehow still came out as bad as it did. You see, there are two different types of bad movies: Transformers Bad and The Last Airbender Bad. Transformers Bad movies are still recognizably movies; they are bad mainly because they are slathered in offensive nonsense and aggressive stupidity. Deprived of it, they’d be merely dull. The Last Airbender Bad movies… These are films that could have been made by a student with the right budget. In every aspect of the movie, you are left with no idea how anyone making it could be considered a professional.

“Red Tails” is a The Last Airbender Bad movie.

It tells the story of the highly decorated Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, as they fought through a racist establishment and an increasingly powerful German opposition to become one of the most celebrated squadrons in the conflict.

And I really do use the word “story” in the loosest sense here, because it’s really more of a sequence of events without any relevant thematic through-line or any connecting element beyond the pilots participating in them. The pacing is all out of whack. Minor conflicts feel like climactic events, and the climax feels like just another fight. Even after it’s over, you feel like the movie could still have some juice left. It doesn’t so much end as it does just stop.

But let’s get to the sheer incompetence of the film, because it’s just… Everywhere, seriously.

First off, the dialogue is just hokey as crap. There’s a romance in the film (an extraordinarily unbelievable one that’s likely to induce open-mouthed shock in terms of how seriously it gets taken at times, especially towards the end). The two lovers are inhibited due to a language barrier, which is great, because I honestly felt like we were only two pages away from, “I hate sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating,” at all times. “Red Tails” truly does cover every possible spectrum of bad dialogue.

Special mention has to go to the bomber pilots. I think Lucas approved the script, with a minor notation: “Make sure everything the bomber pilots say is laughably stupid and delivered with the vocal inflection of a first time actor in an infomercial.”

“I sure do hope those… (pause for emphasis) Red Tails cover us again!”

And then there’s Terrence Howard, who plays resident military higher-up Colonel Bullard and probably wakes up every morning and says, “Front and center, coffee machine! Stand up straight! I have only the highest expectations for you, and today, come what may, we are going to make the best dang coffee the world has ever seen! All those little gears and gyros inside of you are going to come together with the finest ingredients, and against all odds, we will prevail! We will make the greatest coffee in the history of time! And everyone else will stand and look upon us and envy that we have indeed made the best coffee out of all of the coffees! Today… We brew coffee!

Seriously, he has, like, ten speeches in this movie.

The acting… Well, it’s like the “Star Wars” prequels—sometimes difficult to tell whether it’s the acting or the dialogue or both. (It’s both.) Some actors carry the ball, others drop the ball, and still others grab the ball and heave it with all their might against a brick wall over and over again until it turns into pulp. I was prepared for a while to praise Cuba Gooding Jr., who starts off the film clearly relishing getting to play a grizzled authority figure, but then he starts having too much fun. I fully expect there are teeth marks in that pipe he’s always swinging around.

The writing is equally incompetent in all of the worst ways, beyond just the dialogue. As previously stated, it’s not a story so much as two hours of stuff happening. Not every scene serves a specific purpose, nor does every subplot. Character conflict is handled in an extremely schizophrenic way: “I hate you, I am angry, and we are no longer friends! Today, I apologize for that. But now it’s a day later, and we’re still having problems, you stupid jerk!”

More frustrating is the fact that it’s so transparently emotionally manipulative. The movie is not a story, the characters are not characters, and the themes are not themes. They are all constructs designed to manipulate audience emotions to no particularly productive end. Some characters are clearly just there to die. At least one character is put through an entire developmental arc that ends up not being resolved—it’s only there so we’ll care when he dies. The race issues are not explored or questioned. They’re raised for the following reason: we feel bad when we see racism. It makes the characters sad, so it makes us sad, too. That’s why the scenes where the white pilots warm up to the Red Tails seem so cheesy; they’re laying the whole, “Hey, you guys are talented like us, too!” on in such a thick and insufferable way to make sure the audience is having emotions.

The manipulation is at its worst towards the end of the film. I can’t spoil it for the moment, but then again… You haven’t seen many movies if you don’t see it coming a mile away. In essence, are you familiar with the Three Days Until Retirement trope? Yeah, “Red Tails” has the next worst thing. Whoever came up with that idea needs to go sit in the corner with the guy who put magical Native Americans into “Cowboys and Aliens.” That crap is so clichéd it’s just not even acceptable anymore.

But then there’s the direction and editing, which are both completely inexcusable. This is where I start wondering if this is just a student production with a comparatively large budget.

Scenes don’t end in “Red Tails.” They just quit. The actors run out of dialogue, so the camera just runs away. Sometimes, it fades out to a completely unrelated shot. There’s no sense that Anthony Hemingway has any idea how to transition between scenes. He can’t even let shots breathe. If the scene is over, then the camera is going someplace else. Half the time, they throw in a wipe or a special fade, like that somehow excuses it. Instead, it merely calls attention to the fact that no one here has any clue what they’re doing.

Everything is just wrong directionally. It’s always the wrong shot, the wrong edit, the wrong timing, everything. The filmmakers’ understanding of the craft seem to begin and end at, “Most scenes ought to have more than one shot, and you should cut sometimes.” There is no imagination whatsoever. The same shots get reused scene after scene.

The special effects, while bad, are not so bad that a good director couldn’t figure out how to shoot them so that they aren’t noticeable. But nope! Not here. Hemingway keeps every awful, awful effect perfectly in frame and even makes sure to throw plenty of non-CGI stuff in there just to make sure the fakeness is even more glaring. He even makes physical sets look fake somehow. The whole movie looks cheap. Everything looks like it ought to be rotating around somewhere in Ralph and Alice Kramden’s apartment. It resembles the little dramatic bits that go between informational segments of a History Channel special. Actually, that’s pretty much what this is, so I guess it’s appropriate.

Seriously, there are movies that are bad, and then there are movies that are just incompetent. I am not a visually oriented person overall, so when even I notice that your film looks like crap, something is up. The dialogue induces plenty of unintended laughs, the editing is jarring and awful, the characters are flat, the story is nonexistent, and the effects would’ve looked cheap in the 90s (do people even realize how old “Jurassic Park” is now? And do people know for what budget “District 9” was made?). Worse still, it’s emotionally manipulative bordering on comical, like it’s poking you in the ribs with a stick and saying, “Be sad. Be sad. Be sad. Look how bad racism is?” (War, on the other hand, in “Red Tails” appears to be a lot of fun, so long as you’re good enough not to get shot.)

“Red Tails” has no idea what it’s doing. And I’m not a George Lucas hater, by the way. The Original Trilogy defined my entire childhood. I even sort of like the… Actually, it would probably be bad for my critical reputation to admit that I enjoy the prequels, so I won’t. Wait… Crap.

But this is beyond him. There is not a single, solitary thing that works at all about this movie. There’s no sense given of what made the Tuskegee Airmen so special. It meanders forever, openly manipulates, and blunders into every scene like it was directed by Jar-Jar Binks.

I’m told there was an HBO movie about the protagonists of this film. I haven’t seen it, but it can’t possibly be worse, so go watch that instead. This… Skip, skip, skip.

 

-Matt T.

Contraband (2012)

Starring- Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster, Lukas Haas, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucky Johnson, Olafur Darri Olafsson, J.K. Simmons, William Lucking

Director- Baltasar Kormakur

R- violence, pervasive language and brief drug use

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjcCbSmF_OA

“Contraband” is the straw that broke the camel’s back—the camel here being me, and the back my sanity. I probably hate it disproportionately to the actual amount of offense it levels against art and creativity. Not to suggest that it is secretly worthy of being loved, or even of being casually liked—far, far from it. I simply hate it a whole lot despite the fact that there are other films that deserve that hatred far more profoundly. “Taken,” for example—and I am gleefully looking forward to when the sequel provides me an opportunity to rant afresh about that one. But not today.

The difference, though… I saw “Taken” two years ago. With “Contraband”… Well, it’s the last of a long string of action movies with its same exact problem, and I am far beyond the point where I’m able to tolerate it anymore.

Because modern action movies are really starting to concern me. And don’t worry; it’s nothing to do with the whole modern art is destroying creativity! alarmist nonsense. But recent trends in action movies actually have me a bit worried about the people who enjoy them and especially the people who create them. They are so terrible at considering moral implications that they begin to reflect upon the actual values of their consumers…

And this is potentially a big, big problem.

So, “Contraband” is about a character that you, quite frankly, will refer to as Mark Wahlberg whose name, IMDB tells me, is Chris Farraday. He is a former smuggler who got out of the game for…reasons. He is now happily married to a character you will refer to as Kate Beckinsale, making it a lucky break indeed that her name actually is Kate. I love it when movies do my job for me. He is also gainfully employed in the action protagonist career least likely to ever become a plot point—home security installation.

Anyway, his idiot brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) is still wrapped up in the smuggling game. This becomes a problem when he is forced to dump a cargo owed to violent gangster Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), who immediately calls for his head. (He accomplishes this by ramming into his car and then…apparently letting him escape, or something.)

Farraday, who knows Briggs, decides to avert disaster by disappearing back into the smuggling life one more time, running a cargo up from Panama to earn enough money to buy off the gangster.

But things are never quite that simple.

I don’t really want to dwell long on what’s wrong with the script and presentation in “Contraband,” because there are so many more interesting things to rant about. We’ll start with the obvious—Andy is a moron who repeatedly does stupid things that dig the characters into deeper and deeper holes. He basically deserves what he has coming. Not that I rooted for him to die—he is clearly an idiot who is in way over his head.

At the same time, for nearly three-fourths of the film, he is the only thing at stake. And as a motivation for the hero (who clearly can only barely tolerate him, by the way)… Well, he’s not particularly compelling. It’s like if you were to make an action movie about a murderer running from the police… I wouldn’t root for him to die, maybe, but I certainly wouldn’t root for him to escape. And “Contraband” is a movie where you are supposed to root for a mostly unlikable character to escape the inevitable consequences of his actions. Frankly, I wished the protagonists would have just turned him over to the police and let him pay for his stupidity.

Instead, they try to save him—and his further actions eventually lead to the deaths of innocent people. And OH. BOY. WE ARE. GETTING. THERE.

Good going, “Contraband.”

It eventually does raise the stakes by putting Farraday’s mostly innocent wife on the line, but it’s too little and too late.

Beyond that… Well, the characters are extremely boring. Wahlberg’s star-power is not nearly enough, because he is on full autopilot here. I couldn’t even tell you the names of his support team on the smuggling run. Well, except for Olaf, but only because, in either a wondrous twist of fate or a hilarious twist of lazy character creation, his actor’s name is Olafur Darri Olafsson. Again, thank you for doing my job for me, “Contraband.”

And it’s not even really an action movie… It takes at least an hour to get to the first thing resembling a set piece. It’s not a heist movie either, because mostly they just load stuff in vans and drive really fast. It’s a movie where people talk about stuff and smuggle things. Thrilling?

Dull, mostly. And then, we get to one scene, not more than ten minutes long… In fact, not even that scene, but a two-second shot within that scene. That’s where I switched instantly into utter loathing.

So, because Andy is a moron, when he receives a threat against his sister while on the job, instead of sticking with his much smarter brother-in-law’s plan, he actively subverts it—while Farraday is negotiating with a dangerous crime boss, Andy takes his money, surely aware that this is a death sentence for the relative trying to save his life. And then he goes and buys drugs that he can take to Briggs in payment for his sister’s protection.

Would you believe we aren’t even to the part that enraged me yet?

Well, the dangerous crime boss turns out to be slightly more reasonable than average. He agrees to let Farraday and crew keep the payload they came to purchase… But only if they act as bait in a scheme where they steal a priceless work of art mid-transit.

With me so far? Good.

I want to make it clear that the innocent guards traveling with this particular painting are not shot and killed after a long struggle in which they fight back more than expected, making it a tragic accident. No, they are freaking sniped the moment they step out of the vehicle.

Therefore, Farraday and crew went into the situation deliberately, in full knowledge that their teammates were going to kill innocent people. “Oh,” you say, “but they didn’t pull the trigger! They’re not responsible!”

No? They might not have pulled the trigger, but they did wreck the armored vehicle. So, yeah, they are 100% responsible, and no way in any court of law would they not be convicted of murder alongside their cohorts who did the actual shooting.

And lest you think there’s a redeeming context for this… There isn’t. It’s not a tragic moment where the heroes have a What have I done? moment. The shot only lasts about two seconds and is lost in the cacophony of the larger action sequence, where the only thing we’re supposed to be concerned about is our “heroes” getting away safely. They steal the painting, by the way, and later sell it for a large sum, making it even worse. The guards and their killing? Never mentioned again or even emphasized in any way. Remove that shot from the film, and it changes exactly not at all.

Do you see why this bothers me?

I know how this is going to go down. “Lighten up, dude! It’s just a movie!” You see, as someone who writes… I know that it never is. It is never just a movie, just a book, or just a song. The things that you value are going to be reflected in the things you create. It happens naturally, whether you intend it or not. Even creators who are most likely not artists, i.e. most directors of blockbusters, are still going to see it slipping through the cracks.

So, inevitable conclusion? To write this scene, to create this scene, to watch and find no problem with this scene… It implies to me a worldview that I see reflected in reality all too often. “If I am protecting myself or someone else that I love, it doesn’t matter if people I don’t know get caught in the crossfire.”

I don’t find it distasteful merely because I saw it in a movie. I find it distasteful because I see it a lot in real life. And we could argue forever about whether art imitates life or vice versa… But the fact that we can have that debate ought to make us much more concerned about what we’re creating.

And I see it in far too many movies of this type. In any given “Transformers” film, the camera makes certain we see the fleeing civilians getting blown up in the background… But they’re not part of anything beyond the cool explosions that are engulfing them. We’re only supposed to give a crap about the two main characters fleeing in the foreground.

A lot of people criticize “The Avengers” for not displaying a single civilian casualty in the climax, even though there ought reasonably to have been hundreds. But that’s because Joss Whedon gets it. He understood that the moment we saw human carnage going on in that film, he would either have to play it for tragedy—largely defeating the lighthearted silliness of the whole ordeal—or he would have to let the movie become soulless and amoral. Realistic? No. But it gives you a great look at where the filmmaker’s heart is. His more violent works, such as “Firefly,” tend also to be far more morally ambiguous—and far more openly acknowledging of the fact.

“Contraband” is morally ambiguous, but it doesn’t care for a second. I’m not sure if it’s a case of Don’t Do This Cool Thing or Definitely Do This Really Awful Life-Ruining Thing. At the end, the protagonist must be having an internal dialogue along the following lines: “Well, things got progressively worse, my father is in prison for basically the rest of his life, my family got threatened, my wife almost got murdered, I nearly died several times, I personally aided and abetted the murder of innocent people, and I now have to live off the grid with possibly other dangerous criminals chasing me. However, I also made a lot of money, so I guess smuggling is awesome and the clear right career choice for me, right, audience?”

Fun, right?

 

-Matt T.